by Stacey Dingwall
Last week, Brighton College, a co-educational independent college, announced that it is to stop making a distinction between boys’ and girls’ uniforms. The announcement was made in order to support transgender or dysphoric (a condition where someone feels there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity, and which is unrelated to sexual orientation) students, by allowing them to choose between wearing a blazer, tie and trousers or skirt and jacket. The school stated that the decision was taken in reaction to “a changing society which recognises that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school”.
The school, which is the first in Britain to make such a move, has been praised for its decision by parents, and claims to have received messages from other schools who are considering following their lead. While the school’s announcement has been widely covered by the press as a landmark decision, it was interesting to note that the reaction from the students themselves has been more muted. Speaking to The Independent, one 17 year old pupil suggested that it hadn’t really been seen as a “big deal” among students, who she views as a more “open-minded generation”. A difference in attitudes between generational groups was also evident in the results of a 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1,000 American adults: 54% of respondents aged 18-29 believed parents should allow their children to identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, a statement that only 29% in the 65+ age group agreed with.
Unfortunately, recent research indicates that there is still some way to go in providing effective support for transgender people, including in schools. When taking evidence for their recently published report on transgender equality in the UK, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee heard that transgender, and gender-variant, pupils and their families face particular challenges at school, in terms of:
- recording a change of name and gender
- inclusion in sport
- access to toilets.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also highlighted research which indicates that 91% of boys and 66% of girls who identify as transgender have experienced bullying or harassment at school. This is higher than the levels of discrimination experienced by lesbian and gay students, and can lead to transgender pupils experiencing mental health problems and dropping out of education early.
The evidence submitted to the Committee’s inquiry suggests that the example of Brighton College is very much the exception, with the support for transgender pupils in schools across England reported to be ‘uneven’. Susie Green of Mermaids, an organisation which provides family and individual support for teenagers and children with gender identity issues, suggested that some schools were adopting a “victim mentality”, seeing the transgender student as the problem and wanting to “get rid” of, rather than accommodating, them and addressing the wider issues.
Several witnesses argued that schools should provide better support as part of their Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum. It was noted however, that PSHE is not currently statutory, although the Commons Education, Health, Home Affairs and Business committees argue that this should be changed. The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, contributed her view that just because something is statutory, “[does not mean] it is going to be taught well.”
While political wrangling over the issue continues, the most important thing to ensure is that pupils are being supported as effectively as possible. Concluding their report, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee stated that more needs to be done in order that young people and their families get sufficient support at school, and that schools must ensure they are compliant with their legal obligations towards pupils across all protected characteristics, including that which relates to transgender people, and especially gender-variant young people. The Committee recommended that the government should consider the inclusion of training on these protected characteristics in its review of initial teacher training, and that trans issues (and gender issues generally) should be taught as part of PSHE.
On a practical level, writing in the Guardian, teacher Allie George suggested several ways in which classrooms can be made a safe and inclusive space for transgender pupils:
- Creating a safe environment whether teachers are aware of transgender pupils in their school or not. This allows pupils who may be questioning their gender identity the space to do so
- Have a seating plan that reflects pupils’ ability or current/target grades, as opposed to a boy-girl plan
- Recognise transphobic behaviour and address it, educating pupils why this is unacceptable
- Respect a transgender pupil’s choice of name
- Provide safe spaces for transgender pupils, particularly in terms of bathroom access.
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